‘Duck Soup’ (1933) and the Mirror Moment
With the country of Freedonia in a dire financial state, a wealthy socialite promises a grand donation to keep the government running as long as a certain Rufus T. Firefly is made the country’s new leader, which he accepts before making a mockery of the position when he starts a war with neighboring Sylvania.
Directed by Leo McCarey, Duck Soup (which was slang at the time for something easy to do), while often called a critical and box office failure upon release, actually was a successful film but not thought of as topical or as funny as their previous work. Interestingly, it has since become considered a masterpiece in the genre and the greatest of the Marx Brothers pictures. Groucho Marx plays Firefly, who makes every effort he can to turn Freedonia upside down with his wild antics and rapid-fire wit. After he is inaugurated, he even sings that the country only thinks it’s bad off now. Firefly pursues the widowed Mrs. Teasedale (Margaret Dumont), infuriating (after insulting) Trentino (Louis Calhern) the ambassador of Sylvania who also wants Teasedale’s hand in marriage. A scheme is concocted to dethrone Firefly even as he goes about his days gleefully ignoring the necessities of his position. From there, the scathing political farce goes headlong into a silly comedic romp that while dated to be sure, still seems topical as the two countries go to war over senseless things. The musical numbers and the Marx Brothers patented zany anarchic delivery, filled with wordplay, puns, and physical pratfalls may be unfamiliar and out of understanding for most modern audiences with their brand of comedy feeling tame by comparison with today’s standards, but at the time was certainly daring, if not controversial. By the time Duck Soup hit theaters though, the country was slipping into the Great Depression and theater goers were having a shift in sensibilities, not so willing to have their government so comedically maligned. Looking at it today, the genius of the bold and often very funny attack on the propaganda and reasons behind war are fun to watch, especially in the final act when the Brothers pull out all the stops in a finale that cuts deep and is riotously funny.
THE MIRROR MOMENT
In this scene, we are in the manor where Firefly lives as the leader of Freedonia, and two spies from Sylvania have made their way inside. Pinkie (Harpo Marx) is dressed as Firefly in a long white nightshirt, white socks and a long tasseled night cap. He is also has his face adorned with the signature greasepaint mustache and eyebrows. Running through the halls, he accidentally crashes into a full length mirror separating two rooms. The ruckus arouses Firefly and he comes to investigate. Pinkie, not wanting to give away his position, pretends to be Firefly’s reflection, literally mirroring everything Firefly does until Chicolini (Chico Marx), also dressed like Firefly, stumbles into the frame.
WHY IT MATTERS
The mirror gag is one of precision timing and to be successful must escalate from the simple to the complex, from the routine to the unexpected. While this moment in Duck Soup is not the first use of the gag in film, it being done twelve years earlier in Max Linder‘s Seven years Bad Luck, it remains the most noteworthy and remembered. That’s because of the it’s staggering depth. These two characters do more than simply stare at each other and mimic some hand gestures, though that is how is starts. From there, they make much more exaggerated movements, flailing their arms and wriggling their limbs while hopping on one leg all in near exact duplication. The high level of choreography is impressive and lasts far longer than expected as they up the ante so to speak with each physical action. Further making this feat so memorable is their use of full body gestures, giving the prank the next level approach. The sheer complexity of the stunt is deceptively subtle, but considering the number of mirrored actions and the time that is lasts, it remains extraordinary to watch.
Where it zooms to genius is when the two move into the other’s domain, each shifting ‘through’ the imagined mirror and taking up the person’s place, thus truly posing the question of who is a reflection of whom? This small moment in the larger gag is where that touch of madness that makes the Marx Brothers so great, teetering on the thin line of absurdity and audience believability before bringing it all back. The fact that Pinkie looks so much like Firefly already makes us wonder who is who but the change in position toys with that even more, making the mirror moment one of the greats in comedy.
Bert Kalmar (story), Harry Ruby (story)
Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx